FM Issue: Evolving With The Smarter Grid

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By Jay Sparling
Published in the November 2011 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

When most people think of the term “smart grid,” visions of an automated, interconnected energy network come to mind. Yet, for some facility managers (fms), this vision is one relegated to a future destination of where they think the nation’s energy grid will be down the road. While moving from a system that has been in place for decades can be a daunting task, many fms have integrated themselves with the evolving network and made their smart grid operations a reality.

But there is still an area of concern from those who are uncertain of how to optimize the potential of the emerging smart grid. No matter the excuse or reason for reluctance, it’s important to understand that the evolution of a more intelligent electrical grid is reflective of the way users want their energy managed, and it’s a viable solution to problems associated with a strained, aging infrastructure.

Fms And The Grid

Utilities themselves are consistently overworked, and rate payers are shelling out more money for electricity they don’t need. This growing disconnect makes it apparent that the smart grid is far from a technology of the future. In fact, its growing adoption is signaling that it’s here to stay and will continue to grow.

According to Pike Research, smart grid infrastructure, including grid automation upgrades as well as smart metering, will attract $200 billion in worldwide investment between 2008 and 2015. [“Smart Grid Investment to Total $200 Billion Worldwide by 2015” (December 28, 2009).] For fms, this means they not only need to make sure they are prepared to integrate their facilities into the smart grid, but they must also be ready to take proper considerations into account when connecting.

It’s no secret that the life of fms and operators is about getting jobs done. They face constant maintenance issues, deal with regulatory constraints, and tackle challenges that seek to take their operations offline. Because of these challenges, they have learned to live and breathe operational flexibility and react in the face of changing environments.

Integrating with the smart grid is merely taking the everyday flexibility of operating a facility and incorporating a new variable: procuring a profit by continuing to remain flexible in terms of operations. There are four themes to consider when contemplating the smart grid:

  • Orientation: understanding the landscape of the electrical grid;
  • Preparation: knowing the right industry partners and understanding their capabilities;
  • Motivation: having a grasp of the advantages that await with smart grid integration; and
  • Flexibility: knowing the capabilities when it comes to energy management.

Orientation

Understanding the current landscape of the grid and today’s energy management strategies and practices is paramount to comprehending how the smart grid is changing the interaction between utilities and fms. It’s a very real solution to an outdated, inefficient, and aging infrastructure, and it can provide benefits for both the utility and its customers.

The current relationship with utilities revolves around fms buying their power, receiving a bill, and paying for the services. In addition, the traditional approach to energy management is not fully automated, which impacts utilities’ ability to control peak demand. During periods when demand often exceeds supply and strains the grid, utilities have traditionally employed strategies to avoid brownouts or blackouts, including purchasing power on the spot market or using peaking plants to increase supply.

The smart grid, however, aims to establish a more transparent, cost-effective, and secure network that can help mitigate these situations. It allows utilities to tap existing capacity more efficiently, which helps lower costs for customers due to the ability to decide when to use price based energy.

Preparation

The smart grid is about relationships. It entails recognizing that fms, generators, and distributors are interacting with each other in new ways for mutual gain. That said, it’s imperative for fms to understand the utility’s strengths, as well as where help is needed if they intend to integrate their building systems into the smart grid.

For starters, utilities must maintain system balance in a safe and reliable manner. They are adept at forecasting demand through things like predicted population growth, but what they can’t keep up with are fickle, long-term trends with respect to the economy, weather, and consumer buying. For instance, the explosion of the use of consumer electronics and the emergence of electrical vehicles will strain the grid and significantly alter consumption; these trends were difficult to predict.

With traditional generation measures stretched, utilities have a finite number of assets at their disposal. As a result, they look to temper demand by motivating customers to change their consumption profiles.

Fms can work directly with their utilities to make energy more affordable and offload some of their unnecessary consumption. And leveraging the flexibility and insight from the smart grid can help avoid costly pricing spikes during peak demand. It also increases the ability of utilities to respond to changing energy consumption behavior.

Motivation

While utilities’ search for help, offloading energy demand is nothing new. The smart grid has changed the playing field, and those who have chosen to leverage it to manage consumption better have positioned themselves as leaders amongst their industry peers, realizing significant benefits in terms of affordability and cost savings. Early adopters have helped create a more reliable grid while creating affordable energy for themselves as well as others.

Specifically, these benefits are playing out across industries, from traditional manufacturers to hospitals, college campuses, and office buildings. Fms who have integrated their building systems with the smart grid are not only helping reduce strain on the grid, but they are also realizing significant benefits in-house, as well.

Take a traditional manufacturer, for instance. In this particular example, the fm employs a traditional demand response program, which is largely manual and involves the utility notifying the facility of an energy price increase via a phone call or e-mail. This then triggers a manual response from an individual within the facility, such as the fm, which involves walking through a facility to flip switches and turn off various loads. While proactive, the drawback of this process is that it is not completely foolproof, repeatable, or replicable, so reliability and insight become an issue. What happens when the individual is sick, off site, or forgets a spot?

In contrast, the smart grid enables automated demand response, which bridges this reliability gap with the right technology to automate responses. Instead of one way communication, systems get price increase signals from the utility, communicate with the building automation system, and make changes based on parameters the fm sets.

For example, a facility can reduce costs by altering its energy use during specific periods based on price increase signals. These alterations could include turning off lights, cycling equipment, reducing motors, shutting down supplemental elevator banks, or increasing temperature set points temporarily.

This is how facilities are getting ahead when it comes to energy management. In the end, the facility with an automated response to spiking costs achieves a significant savings and reliability advantages.

Flexibility

When it comes down to it, fms need to ask themselves if they are indeed ready and able to integrate with the smart grid. Being ready encompasses both a physical ability to meet the needs of being integrated with the smart grid as well as the drive and motivation to work with a new system and explore an evolving method of energy management.

Leveraging the smart grid calls for sacrificing energy usage, being available to reduce usage at a moment’s notice, and offloading consumption as needed. In almost all cases, facilities have the capacity and flexibility to meet the energy shed needs of the utility. All that is required is proper planning and execution of facility operation principles which most good managers use every day—responding with a surefire solution to the challenges that present themselves with little to no warning. For fms, integrating with the smart grid can be just another variable in the multi-variable equation of energy management and facility operations.

What Can Fms Do?

In practicality, preparing for integration with the smart grid encompasses a few simple steps.

  • Fms should take stock of how they, in their current operations, reduce energy usage temporarily. Identifying these proactive reductions in energy can be mimicked when partnering with an energy provider and automating such reductions.
  • Managers and operators should be familiar with the equipment they need to disable or turn off and make the transition easily repeatable. This is important when automating the process, because having a replicable, familiar method of shedding energy load will facilitate an easier transition to an automated demand response program.
  • Fms should also make sure they are comfortable with the amount of predetermined advance notice they receive from their provider. Whether they determine one day, one hour, or one minute is enough notice to continue operating seamlessly, facilities need to work with their utility to assign a workable timeframe.

The rise of the smart grid has led to dynamic pricing structures and more effective ways of loosening the strain on today’s energy infrastructure. Facilities have an opportunity to get ahead of the curve by leveraging the insight provided by the smart grid, working directly with providers, and seizing control of rising energy volatility. By preparing in advance and determining a facility’s available capacity and ability to integrate, fms can ensure future savings and contribute to the foundation of a smarter, more efficient reality.

Sparling is a director with Honeywell Building Solutions, where he leads the organization’s international business development efforts for Automated Demand Response.

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